CHAMPAIGN — When T.J. Blakeman goes for a walk in downtown Champaign, he sees not just the buildings as they are, he sees what they were.
The man who is a city planner by day and preserver of history in his off hours recently launched a blog about those buildings that he hopes will speak to others about Champaign's past and get them to build on it as well.
Blakeman was instrumental in pulling together pictures and items from Champaign's past for the city's sesquicentennial celebration in 2010.
"Before we started the 150th celebration, there wasn't a very good sense of our own history. After bringing it out, the community really responded well to it," Blakeman said of the display at the Illinois Terminal building downtown.
"I'm trying to elevate that discussion about our local history. It was such a wonderful reaction in 2010 that I've been searching for a way to keep that going," he said.
Hence, the birth in December of champaignhistory.blogspot.com, a visually interesting and well-organized series of mostly photos of downtown Champaign buildings.
"It's a follow-up to that (sesquicentennial) work. It's something I do totally in my free time," said Blakeman, who has been with the city for 10 years, the last nine as a planner. He was an intern his first year.
Blakeman plans to organize his blog by building and address. He was inspired by a podcast he enjoys called the Bowery Boys, about different areas of New York City.
"The podcasts are an hour long, in-depth, about different aspects of buildings. There may be one on Macy's or Herald Square. That got me thinking, 'What about organizing this by building and showing the evolution of that over time?' That's how the blog is organized, by address. That's the most logical way to lay it out."
"The way I see it is that the buildings in downtown have all been recycled over time. Very few are original to the site. Most are in the third or fourth building, so organizing by address was the logical way for me to walk through the evolution of that building," he said.
He hopes that blog readers will supplement his work.
"My goal is that the community adds comments about that particular building and over time we build the history through the comments so individual stories such as a childhood memory of a store or perhaps, 'My grandfather worked there' can be added and the comments stay together by address," he said.
Blakeman recently hit the mother lode, so to speak, when he received a folder full of photos from Dan Sholem.
He's a grandson of Jerome "J.J." Sholem, whose family sold shoes for many years in downtown Champaign and eventually built a building at 8 E. Main that still bears the Sholem name.
"(The family) said, 'Add these to the city collection.' Well, there is really no city collection, but I have my private collection," said Blakeman, who gratefully accepted the photos, many of which are readily identifiable.
Dan Sholem said he was helping clean out closets at his dad's home when they found scores of photos of downtown Champaign buildings that his grandfather took that he believes to be from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
"It's stuff you don't want to throw away," Sholem said, adding the family is thrilled that Blakeman can digitize the snapshots so others can see them.
"When we're long gone, it will be neat for anybody to click on any piece of real estate and see it. It's going to be fun to see the collection grow, whether it's someone being nostalgic or whether there's some constructive purpose to it," Sholem said.
Blakeman is hopeful that others like the Sholems, with a connection to storied property, will be willing to share information or photos so it's not lost to the ages. The Robeson family, for example, has done a good job of recognizing the impact of their department store on the city, documenting it in a book, "Remembering Robeson's."
"Sometimes children don't want to preserve that and boxes of photos get thrown away. I feel like we're in a very small window here. When you get too far removed from that generation, that information will be incredibly hard to find," he said.
Blakeman said he intends to make weekly entries to the blog, assuming he has enough material and can keep up. He credited the "ladies at the archives" in the Urbana Free Library as being extremely helpful to him.
He's currently juggling two sets of duties at work. In addition to his work as a city planner, he also acts as the part-time executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership. That organization was born about two years ago as a result of a merger between the downtown and Campustown associations.
"I've been doing that for about 1 1/2 years and will do it for another year," he said of the job for which he's on loan. "That's why you see me out there organizing the Parade of Lights, Restaurant Week, Shop Local Saturdays. It's really important for me to keep that (affinity for downtown Champaign) going."
In addition to his different work hats, he's the father of a 16-month-old daughter and husband to newly elected Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman.
"The good thing about having a 16-month-old is she goes to bed around 7:30 or 8 p.m. so dad has time in the evening to sit around and play with (his blog)," he said.